Female Class Politics

Speech at Women’s Equality Party Assembly, 23 September 2020

To lay out my thoughts about women’s political representation, I want to first outline my socialist and radical feminist analysis of women’s politics. What I most want to underline is that from my perspective, feminism is a form of materialist class politics, not a form of identity politics. That is, my analysis of the position of women is rooted in understanding that female people have a particular type of body and reproductive capacity and are subject to a system of power on the basis of being female. This power structure exists because of the historical development of a hierarchical system of extraction of the reproductive and socially reproductive labour of female people, otherwise known as patriarchy. Consequently, women have a range of shared material political interests. Most obviously these pertain to issues around reproductive and sexual autonomy, and the violences women are subjected to by male power’s effort to control their bodies as a sexual and reproductive resource. This then extends to how women’s labour is devalued, invisibilised, and appropriated by the intertwined structures of patriarchy and capitalism. This includes women’s disproportionate poverty, the wage gap, maternity cover and child-care, the undervaluing and feminisation of all forms of care labour, the concentration of women in low-paid and low status occupations, and the ways all these issues disproportionately impact working class and racialised women. Lastly, this leads to the demand for a fundamental structural transformation in order to challenge extractive relations, undertake a just accounting of women’s labour, and do away with the symbolic representations and psychological conditioning that undermines women’s humanity by positioning them as a sexual, reproductive, domestic and emotional resource for males. The fundamental structure of patriarchal gender is then a matter of socialising women into the role of a service-class orientated to male needs, and socialising males into a mode of dominance and entitlement. Feminist politics which reinforces female socialisation and de-centers the needs and interests of female people is thus antithetical to challenging gender in its deepest sense.  

On the question of why women’s political representation matters, let’s focus on two key areas. The first involves the symbolic importance of women’s representation, the way it serves as a role model and opens possibilities for other women, and the fact that ‘representational justice or equality’ is an important value in and of itself. With respect to the inclusion of trans women in women’s representation, this immediately forces a confrontation with the bitterly contested ontological question of ‘what is a woman.’ As should be apparent from what I’ve just said, my answer to this question is informed by materialist class analysis. That is, women are a sex-class. This matters not only because it frames women’s class interests, but because the alternative interpretation, from our perspective, relies on essentialising gender, which we consider to be the mechanism of the oppression of women as a sex-class. At the heart of this conflict is the fundamental question of the definition of women being changed from a sex class to a gender class. Given that we think that gender is how women are oppressed on the basis of sex, we consider it regressive for women to be recognised in public life as instantiations of gender, and to be redefined on the basis of an identification with gender that not only bears little relation to our experience as female human beings, but diminishes the way patriarchal gender profoundly harms our humanity.

I think it’s worth briefly thinking this under the rubric of ‘Diversity and Inclusion.’ The aim of inclusion is actually structurally contradictory to the aim of diversity. If everyone is included inside one category, then many salient differences between groups get lost, and we undermine diversity. Much present identity politics is focused on a possibly over-stated emphasis on difference, while conversely, the relation of women and trans women is being thought under the sole political directive of inclusion, which is undermining the recognition of important political and social differences. What we should be aiming towards is a model that honours both similarity and difference. We need to recognise that female people and people who identify as women are not identical, and stop trying to erase this difference in a way which many women feel is overwriting their political existence and interests,. This will allow us stand in solidarity with each other, in areas where our political interests are aligned.

This leads to the second area where representation matters, the expression of women’s political interests. This is not simple, because under patriarchy women have the most fractured class consciousness of any oppressed group, and it is far from evident that women in positions of political authority are in the business of representing women’s interests. I would hope, however, that this is less true of the political consciousness of women inside a party set up by and for women. The question then is to what extent women and trans women share political interests. My claim here would be that trans women who respect the difference between trans women and women, and understand why women resist being redefined on the basis of gender, can stand in real and meaningful solidarity with women, although our interests still do not completely coincide. However, at present, given the effort to erase differences, redefine women by gender, and demand access to all sex-based spaces with no gatekeeping, the interests of women and those aligned with the present trans rights project, are, in fact, diametrically opposed. This was evident in Munroe Bergdoff’s much criticised injunction that women shouldn’t centre reproductive issues at the Woman’s March because it was ‘exclusionary’. It is also starkly illustrated by how often advocates of present trans rights discourse diminish the impact of male violence on women’s lives – as indeed Judith Butler did yesterday –  and the extent to which being raised in a society that sexualises women from their early teens, demands that female people have sex-based spaces to preserve their dignity and humanity, as well as their safety. This is source of great regret, as opposition to male violence is one of the places where women and trans women’s interests should most closely align. On the basis of all these factors I would argue that – especially under current circumstances – it is not appropriate for trans women to represent women politically, and I hope in time we can move towards a place where we can stand in close solidarity with each other.

One comment

  1. I’m rather of the impression that trans women don’t suffer the same sort of violence that women do. from men.
    That’s unless they consider the laughter, often ribald, at a ‘bloke in a skirt’ that men are likely to greet them with as being … ummm … literal violence.

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